WOONSOCKET -- When Ghana-born Charles Kwao Acheampong of Worcester met the love of his life, he didn't go to city hall in his home city for the marriage permit. He came to the first city he hit when he crossed the Rhode Island line -- Woonsocket. It's cheaper, faster, and best of all, you don't have to take a blood test, says Acheampong. "I did a search to see where you don't have to give blood," said Acheampong. "I came to Woonsocket because it's close to me." Acheampong is one of an estimated 200 residents of Worcester who were born in West Africa, usually Ghana -- or who married someone else born there -- who have come to Woonsocket to apply for marriage licenses in City Hall since January 2003, according to officials. Acheampong says Rhode Island's law waiving the blood test required in the Bay State is a major incentive, because many Ghanaians are opposed to giving blood for cultural or religious reasons. But some local officials see a more sinister scenario behind the trend, including a local judge who is refusing to marry Ghanaians from Worcester, calling for an investigation into possible immigration law violations.
And a member of the City Council, Suzanne Pouliot, publicly called attention to the issue during a televised meeting of the City Council earlier this week, saying there is cause for concern. Associate Municipal Court Judge John F. Pellizzari said some of the Ghanaian-Worcester couples act as if they barely know each other when they are filling out the paperwork for marriage permits -- even though they are moments away from getting married. Coupled with the fact that at least one of the partners in the prospective marriages does not appear to be a naturalized U.S. citizen, the scenario raises the possibility that some of these linkups are fraudulent marriages designed to allow foreigners to stay in the U.S. illegally, he said. Pellizzari says the police have looked into the Worcester--Ghana-Woonsocket connection and have determined that there is nothing improper taking place. But Pellizari says he is refusing to marry the out-of-staters until there is an investigation by other authorities. He is one of at least a half-dozen civil officials empowered to perform marriage ceremonies locally, "I have trouble with people who don't know each other getting married," says Pellizzari. "I think the whole situation in Woonsocket really needs to be investigated by someone other than a police officer." In these times of heightened awareness of national security, the city's handling of the out-of-state marriages "makes me scratch my head," Pellizzari said. City Clerk Pauline Payeur said she first began noticing an influx of marriage-permit seekers from Worcester in January 2003. Before then, the city clerk could barely remember anyone from Worcester applying for a marriage license -- but suddenly they were coming in every few days, often more than one couple at a time. They now account for an increase of about 25 percent in marriage permits, a major spike that is raising manpower issues, said Payeur. Often, said the clerk, the same woman accompanies the Worcester couples, serving as a sort of guide to steer them through the red tape of civil matrimony. Most of these couples want to pay the $24 fee for the permit and telephone a judge to marry them on the spot, said Payeur. "They can be very demanding," she said. "Some of them think there's a justice of the peace waiting just for them." Like Pellizzari, Payeur has her suspicions about the Worcester couples. Although they are about to exchange wedding vows at City Hall, some of them seem barely familiar with each other's family histories. "They'd be filling out the application and one of them would look at the other and say, 'Who's your father?' That's not something you ask somebody you're about to marry." Payeur was concerned enough to contact the Police Department several months ago, asking them to see whether something illegal was going on. Capt. Luke H. Gallant, the department spokesman, said it may be a crime for people to engage in marriage fraudulently for the purposes of establishing citizenship or to apply for other federal benefits. But if that's the motive, the state doesn't have jurisdiction over the offenses, he said. That's why Gallant referred the matter to the federal bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- a branch of the Department of Homeland Security and previously an arm of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for the immigration-enforcement agency's Boston office, said that marrying for the sole purpose of skirting immigration laws would be a violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act. But Grenier said the office would not comment on whether the concerns flagged by the Woonsocket police have sparked an investigation by the agency. "If there were something going on, we certainly wouldn't confirm or deny that," she said. Not all local officials see evidence of deception in the influx of foreign-born Worcester residents seeking marriage permits. Municipal Court Judge Lloyd R. Gariepy, who has performed marriage ceremonies in City Hall for many of the newlyweds, said there is no reason to believe that any of them are getting married for anything but love. Much of the suspicion is based on the fact that one of the persons in the marriage partnership appears to be a foreign national, born in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal or some other West African nation. But Gariepy said few of those getting married give the city any indication of their actual immigration status, nor are they required to do so.
Passports are a permissible substitute for birth certificates in order to provide the necessary identification on a wedding application. Passports show whether someone is in the country on a temporary visa, which would indicate whether he or she is a foreign national. However, the overwhelming majority of applicants show birth certificates, making it impossible to tell whether someone is a foreign national or a foreign-born, naturalized American citizen -- or something else, said Gariepy.
Either way, Gariepy doesn't think it's any of his business to ask the betrothed to clarify their immigration status or otherwise disclose their purpose in getting married. Once they have supplied the city clerk with the paperwork to qualify for a marriage permit, Gariepy says, there is no grounds for the city to deny them a marriage.
"As far as I read the law, they're entitled to be married if they have a license," said Gariepy. "Because they come from another country or they come from out of state, am I going to refuse to marry them? Absolutely not. If they want to lie on the marriage application, that's their business."
Gariepy believes that most Worcester couples who come here have learned through word of mouth that Woonsocket is the closest community they can travel to in order to take advantage of the laws that make marriage a comparatively faster, cheaper ceremony. Not only does Massachusetts demand a costly blood test, it requires couples to wait three days from the receipt of their license to tie the knot.
In Rhode Island, anyone with $124 -- $24 for the marriage license plus a fee for the justice of the peace or the judge (usually $100) can pretty much get married on the spot.
"I'm sure the word is out that Rhode Island is one of the states you can go to to get married in a hurry," said Pawtucket City Clerk Janice LaPorte, who said Pawtucket saw a trend similar to Woonsocket's emerge several years ago, then fade out. "They can get everything done within a half-hour."
Indeed, Acheampong says, it's no secret among Ghanaians in Worcester that Woonsocket is the place to get married. Ghanaians have a large, tight-knit population in the central-Massachusetts city.
"We are like family," he said.